Canon PowerShot S90 Review


The Canon PowerShot S90 is by far the most versatile and impressive point and shoot digital camera that I’ve ever used. From manual controls, to impressive image and build quality, this consumer camera has all the bases covered. It’s not without a few minor issues, but it definitely offers many features that are not yet standard on similarly priced point and shoot cameras.

What do you get when you open up the box for the S90? A pocket-size camera with built-in image stabilization, macro mode, ability to shoot VGA video, a 3.8x zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.0, the ability to shoot images in RAW format, support for SDHC cards, maximum ISO of 3200 (and ISO 12800 in a special mode), and a large 3-inch screen.

You can also read this entire review on gdgt.


I’ve been on a quest for a new point and shoot camera for awhile now. Something that has good image quality, but didn’t take up too much room in my bag. I needed something new that would compliment my DSLR (a Nikon D300) and the variety of lenses that I normally carry around.

For a time, I considered one of the Micro 4/3rd’s cameras, thinking that was the best compromise of camera size and image quality. Plus, it weighed a lot less than my DSLR! But investing in a new suite of lenses didn’t excite me, nor did the size. Also, a Micro 4/3rd’s camera isn’t very pocketable. Lastly, I’m not too thrilled with the 2.0x crop factor that is so prevalent on these camera bodies.

Fast forward to this past summer. Somehow, the Gods of technology were listening to my needs. In August, Canon announced their newest camera in the PowerShot family, the Canon PowerShot S90. It was about as big as their previous point and shoot offerings, offering 10 megapixels, with an expanded range of ISO speeds (up to ISO 3200, and a special mode that goes up to ISO 12800!), built-in image stabilization, and a 3-inch screen.

Many of those features are pretty standard on other manufacturer’s point and shoots. Where the Canon S90 excels are the additional features this camera has. An f/2.0 zoom lens, full manual controls, and the ability to shoot images in RAW format. On a point and shoot. Are you kidding me?

The moment this was announced, I was all over it. It was instantly added to my gdgt want list!

The camera

Since I’ve received the camera, I’ve been as happy as can be. It features a full compliment of modes that you can find on any DSLR (manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, automatic, various scene selections). The manual controls are extraordinarily simple to use and the feedback on the camera’s LCD screen as you change settings and modes is very responsive. This camera does lack a viewfinder, which might be a turnoff to some people interested in this camera. I’ve noticed this to be an issue on a few occasions, particular when the sun is behind my back. In this scenario, it’s very hard to see what I’m shooting on the LCD screen.

This brings up one of the unique features about this camera: the control ring. On the front of the camera, around the lens itself, is a ring that you can move in either direction. Depending on the mode you’re in, this allows you to control various features of the camera (zoom, aperture, shutter speed) and you’re able to customize the settings to your liking. It’s not at all gimmicky and you actually feel pretty in touch with your camera as you manipulate the settings for the perfect shot. It’s a refreshing feeling to be able to change some of these basic shooting options on a point and shoot without having to navigate through endless menus.

There is a secondary wheel on the back of the camera, near the LCD screen that works similar to the wheel on the back of a Canon DSLR. This can also be customized and used to manipulate your shot. For example, in manual mode, the control ring can control aperture, while the rear wheel can control shutter speed. In aperture priority mode, the control ring can control aperture, while the rear wheel can control exposure compensation.

My only complaint about this particular system is that the rear wheel is much too easy to move. If I’m simply trying to engage the flash, or bring up a menu (these buttons are located in the middle of the wheel), I’ve found myself accidentally changing some aspect of my shot on numerous occasions. It’s kind of annoying!

Another ergonomics issue that was an initial problem was the placement of the shoot button. On most digital cameras, the shoot button is either on the mode selection switch or very near it. The placement of the shoot button on the S90 is slightly peculiar. It’s about an inch or so in from the edge of the camera. You immediately notice it when you pick the camera up and try to take your first shot and there isn’t a button where you subconsciously placed your finger. I’m not sure what the design decision behind this was, but it’s definitely something that comes up whenever I have someone the camera to play with. Once you spend some time with the camera, this is an issue that you quickly forget as muscle memory takes over.

The camera has both autofocus and manual focus modes. For the most part, autofocus properly locks onto the objects you’re trying to shoot. It also includes a face detection mode, which is handy for getting those portraits of your friends and family. There is an option to manual focus an image, but it is rather tedious. When you select manual focus, a zoomed in image pops up on screen, and you move the back wheel to properly focus an image. Personally, I find that it’s kind of awkward to hold the camera and try to manually focus on a subject. Fortunately, it’s not often that I’ve needed to resort to manual focus modes.

Some people have had an issue with the S90’s fairly meager battery life. It’s rated at only 220 shots. In my month or so of using the camera, I haven’t yet had a situation where I’ve run out of battery life, but I’m also pretty deliberate in how I shoot. It’s definitely possible that someone using this camera to capture an endless number of photos for their Facebook album might quickly run into this issue over the course of an evening, but I don’t think that’s who this camera is necessarily intended for.

Lastly, the size of the camera can be slightly unsettling to some. I think it’s the perfect compromise between size and image quality, and it just barely fits in my pocket. It’s not as thin as some cameras in the PowerShot family, and it’s very apparent when one holds them next to each other. Compared to the Canon G11 though, the camera offers many of the same features and capabilities, but in a much easier-to-handle size.

Image quality

As far as images go, I’ve been quite happy with the images this camera produces. It’s dynamic range and noise characteristics are much better than any previous point and shoot that I’ve owned. Even shooting in automatic mode and pointing the camera at a blue sky, I rarely see noise in my images. Most point and shoot cameras seem to exhibit a lot of noise in their photos, regardless of the lighting conditions.

Images up to ISO 1600 are fairly useable, though the noise definitely increases a noticeable amount. While the camera also supports ISO 3200 at 10 megapixels, it’s not necessarily the cleanest image. The camera also contains a special lowlight mode, which can shoot up to ISO 12800. However, the images resolution is stepped down to 2.5 megapixels (presumably, to try and mask the awful noise present).

The other issue I have with lowlight mode is that it is a fully automatic setting. This means that the camera takes over and determines the ideal ISO and shutter speed for a given shot. This is unfortunate, because I’d really like to try my hand at composing images up to ISO 12800, regardless of image quality.

The lens

This camera features a 28mm – 105mm, f/2.0 – 4/f.9 zoom lens with built in image stabilization. The lens in the S90 is very fast for a consumer point and shoot camera. At the wide end, this lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.0! Combined with image stabilization and higher ISO’s, I’ve been able to score some pretty nice lowlight and night time shots with this camera.

At f/2.0, the lens produces some decent bokeh, nicely blurring out background details. You’re really only able to see using the camera’s macro mode and getting up close to an object to shoot it. The results are quite satisfying though.

With a 28mm focal length at the wide end, this lens seems to be on par with most other point and shoot cameras. It’s not truly wide angle, but it’s “wide enough” for most cases. At the wide end, the camera does exhibit barrel distortion, which can be particularly annoying when trying to take pictures of square or rectangular geometries (such as buildings, windows, or brick walls). The long end of the lens tops out at 105mm with a rather average maximum aperture of 4.9.3

Special modes

Like many other point and shoots, this camera offers a number of special shooting modes, such as portrait, landscape, nighttime, underwater (!), and a special lowlight mode. I don’t often shoot in these modes, instead preferring to manually control how I take photos.


One thing that I was disappointed to learn about this camera was its video recording capabilities. The Canon S90 records video at a mediocre resolution of 640 x 480. As expensive as this camera is, I think it’s quite disappointing that it only records video at VGA resolution. I know there are limits to sensor sizes and video recording quality, but when I see other point and shoots (with less versatile sensors) and Flip / Kodak video cameras recording HD video, I really wonder why Canon left this out.


Overall, my gripes with this camera are pretty minor, and are pretty easy to overlook when weighed against the awesome feature set of this camera. As someone looking for a secondary device to compliment my DSLR, this camera fits all my needs and is something I’ve been heartily recommending to people. The MSRP of $429 is a little steep, and unless you’re desperately in need of a new camera, it might be wise to wait until the price drops a bit.

However, if you’re a photography buff looking for a portable and powerful camera to either complement or add to your collection, I think this price is easily to justify. It is without a doubt, the best point and shoot currently on the market.

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